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All the Way to Heaven
Songs of Kabir
By Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
New York Review Books Classics, 2011; 144 pp., $14 (paper)
Reviewed by MICHAEL SOWDER
If you’re a fan of Hafiz or Rumi (said to be America’s favorite poet), you’ll love the fifteenth-century Indian poet Kabir, for he is wilder, sweeter, more radical, and more hopelessly love-intoxicated, if you can imagine that. My favorite quote in literature belongs to him—I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty—in which he smiles at everyone searching for enlightenment while living immersed in the absolute. Kabir brims with such wise, witty reflections.
Those who already know Kabir will meet a leaner, more postmodern poet in the new Songs of Kabir, translated by the Indian poet Krishna Arvind Mehrotra. Those who grew up with Robert Bly’s The Kabir Book of the 1970s, which made Kabir famous in the West, may even wonder if they are reading the same poet. But like the myriad forms of the Divine in the Indian pantheon of gods and goddesses, Mehrotra’s translation assures us that Kabir’s legacy will always be unpredictable, ever-branching, and thrilling to watch unfold.
Kabir sought (and many would say found) enlightenment through bhakti yoga, a path characterized by ecstatic love. Bhakti is a branch of the overarching umbrella of spiritual systems known as Hinduism (actual name sanatana dharma, the “Eternal Truth”; Western invaders coined the term “Hindu” after crossing the Indus River). The goal of bhakti is surrender of the self and annihilation of the ego on the altar of love. A bhakta, one who has fallen in love with the Divine, sings songs, writes poems, plays music, and dances for the Beloved. One might sing to Krishna, Shiva, Kali, or Sarasvati—or Jesus, the Buddha, or your guru—or a mountain, as Ramana Maharshi did for Arunachala. Hindu cosmology features countless gods and goddesses, all of which are simply images for the one infinite consciousness pervading the universe—the unconditioned absolute reality called Brahman, or the (Universal) Self. The many images provide the means of approaching the unapproachable, conceiving the inconceivable, adoring the transcendental. Ultimately, all names and forms fall away in the final vision of enlightenment.
The term bhakti first appeared in scripture in The Bhagavad Gita. There, Krishna, avatar and divine incarnation, counsels the warrior Arjuna before a battle, and, in the course of explaining the meaning of life and death, describes different paths of yoga. While all lead to enlightenment, Krishna says bhakti is the sweetest and easiest—easy, as long as you’re ready to surrender all attachments and the self itself. The nineteenth-century bhakti guru Ramakrishna emphasized that your love must have the intensity of a drowning person gasping for air. The bhakti path emphasizes personal devotion, spontaneous expression, and sometimes unorthodox practices. It is often critical of rigid dogmas, sectarianism, and empty rituals.
In the sixth century, a bhakti movement arose in southern India and spread throughout the subcontinent, flourishing in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries in the northern India of Kabir. We know relatively little about the person Kabir. Tradition has it he was born in the holy city of Varanasi into a Muslim family of weavers, and after his death he was claimed by both Muslims and Hindus. While he called his God “Ram” rather than “Allah” and may have followed a Hindu gurureformer named Ramananda, he freely castigates Hindu pieties, rituals, and the whole caste system.
Among the thousands of poems attributed to Kabir, not one can absolutely be identified as his. No original manuscripts exist, as his poems were transmitted orally. And to complicate matters further, singers in this improvisatory tradition, like jazz musicians, would riff on his lines, altering or expanding them. As Arvind Krishna Mehrotra says in his introduction, Kabir’s “is a collective voice that is so individual that it cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s.”
I was introduced to Kabir in college in the late 1970s, when I was beginning my own journey on the bhakti path. A professor gave me a copy of Robert Bly’s The Kabir Book. Bly called his renderings “versions,” because rather than translating from the Hindi, he took the earlier translations of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and rendered them into contemporary American English.